The Re-evaluation of the Art of Norman Rockwell

T he recent attention to the art of Norman Rockwell is a dramatic turning away from what was once the dominant conclusion about his work. During his career, which spanned 1912-1978, Norman Rockwell achieved great success and while his work was widely adored by the American public, this did not promise him a place in art history.  The art world establishment[1], then enamored with modernism, viewed him as an illustrator, not a fine artist. Over the past twenty years, the art establishment is re-evaluating his career. Moreover, auction house sale prices mirror this re-evaluation; his works are breaking records across multiple sale categories. In this essay I shall argue that the following factors are responsible for his re-evaluation: a new and deliberate slant within scholarship, museum attention, media and press, cultural climate, auction house marketing, collectability, and a shifting understanding of what defines art as “art”.

For decades, scholars have written about Norman Rockwell describing him variously, “…as a fine artist, a folk artist, and no artist”.[2] The prevailing consensus of Rockwell’s work is one of inferiority.

The defining reason for Rockwell’s dismissal is that he created illustration art, which is considered inferior to painting. The distinction between high and low art informs art criticism from the seventeenth-century to the present day and remains at the core of the Rockwell scholarship debate. To understand the divide, it is imperative to examine the historical landscape that distinguished high from low art. Formed in 1577, The Accademia di San Luca began in Rome to elevate the status of artists in society. The Accademia awarded respectability to its members and in turn, to art. By the eighteenth-century, the French Academy codified a hierarchy of genres.[3]  History painting, including religious and allegorical, ranked at the top, followed by portraiture, genre painting, landscape, animal art, and lastly, still life. From here the distinction of “high art” subject matter of the higher genres, and “low art” subject matter of the lower genres emerged.[4]

Twentieth-century[5] critics, rooted in this hierarchy, regarded illustration art as low and demonstratively not in vogue. Rockwell’s career coincided with those of artists working within the Abstraction, American Modernism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art movements in the United States, and Dadism and Surrealism in Europe. Norman Rockwell’s work was the antithesis to these movements and derided by critics such as Clement Greenberg.[6] Modernism championed abstraction and invention while Rockwell created mass-produced images of everyday life, using everyday models. In the preface to the 1972 Rockwell retrospective at Bernard Danenberg Galleries, Thomas Buechner, director of the Brooklyn Museum at the time, states that Rockwell “…and all those other artists with publishers instead of galleries – are the ‘meanwhile back at the ranch’ branch of modern art”.[7]

Recent Rockwell scholarship by Deborah Solomon, Ron Schick, Christopher Finch and Karal Ann Marling upends this argument and is arranged to defend Rockwell’s merit, and perhaps elevate his status to occupy a formal place in the art history canon.

Museum interest, while not wholly independent from scholarship, is the second factor to account for Rockwell’s re-evaluation. There have been two major Rockwell retrospectives, one in 1972 and one in 1999. Before the 1972 retrospective, Bernard Danenberg Galleries exhibited Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post oil paintings in 1968. According to Danenberg, a prominent art dealer who promoted twentieth-century American Modernism,[8] “…Rockwell had never sold an illustration as a painting until that time”.[9] This was a defining moment: a renowned New York art dealer exhibited, sold, and collected Norman Rockwell’s work at a time when his colleagues considered Rockwell irrelevant. Before the 1968 show, Danenberg invited the publisher Harry Abrams to the gallery when he knew Rockwell would be present. Abrams said that,

                        after an hour of looking at Norman’s paintings I told

                        him I’d decided to publish a book on his work.

                        Norman was very happy about my decision,

                        but he thought of himself as just an illustrator,

                        and he was a little worried about being the

                        subject of an art book.[11]

Abrams enlisted Thomas Buechner to write the catalogue text, Norman Rockwell: Artist and Illustrator, “…which became a record-breaking best seller for a $60 book”.[12] Four years later, Danenberg gave Rockwell a retrospective show covering sixty years of his career, titled Major Paintings by Norman Rockwell (Oct 22, 1968 – Nov 9, 1968), with a catalogue also published by Abrams, and written by Buechner, which sold roughly 400,000 copies.[13]

With the 1968 Danenberg show, Rockwell’s art is displayed in a gallery for the first time. Despite this bold assertion, neither this exhibition nor the 1972 retrospective changed prevailing academic opinion. Then, in 1999, the Norman Rockwell Museum and the High Museum of Art produced a large-scale exhibition titled, Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People. The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue deliberately reframed the Rockwell discourse. According to Clarissa J. Ceglio, this deliberate defense of Rockwell was constructed by the art world to convince themselves of his merit.[14] Stephen Bann, Professor Emeritus of nineteenth-century art, University of Bristol, points to the French Academy to argue the same point: that the “institution” is locus for debate and that from such discussions new ideas and possibilities result.[15]

Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People traveled to seven America cities, ending in New York at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, a venue whose participation legitimized Rockwell.[16] His work was finally in the hallowed halls of a world-class art institution. This provides a stamp of approval offering Rockwell a new place in the American art canon, not to mention generating much conversation. In an interview, Robert Rosenblum, art historian, critic and then curator of twentieth-century art at the Guggenheim, and a major figure to help bring the exhibition to the museum, defends Rockwell stating that he was, “…just as deserving of consideration as the Abstract Expressionists who had previously monopolized so much critical attention”.[17] Rosenblum attributes his “conversion to seeing the work hanging on a wall, as paintings…I must say I don’t remember looking that long at paintings before”.[18] Using the word “paintings” instead of “pictures” or “illustrations” could be a deliberate attempt to legitimize Rockwell’s presence in the Guggenheim.[19]

The re-revaluation of Rockwell’s reputation is underscored by the exhibition catalogue which includes essays by art authorities such as, Robert Rosenblum, Thomas Hoving, former Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1967-1977), Laurie Norton Moffatt, Director, Norman Rockwell Museum, Ned Rifkin, then Director, High Museum of Art, and Wanda M. Corn, former Professor of Art History, Stanford University. A short catalogue in length, the product is an authoritative publication granting approval from the top echelons of the art world. In his essay titled, The Great Art Communicator, Hoving argues that twentieth-century criticism must revisit Rockwell and “place him in his authentic position in art”.[20] Hoving continues, eloquently slashing each critical argument, stating that Rockwell was “one of the most successful visual mass communicators of the century, that he “bridged the gap between high and low” art noting that, “art history, for snobbish reasons has always been suspicious of artists considered populizers…and that few have been more popular” than Rockwell.[21] Hoving states that scholarly attention returns to Rockwell because the “obsession for abstraction has cooled”.[22]

Media attention surrounding Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People was widespread and certainly heightened by the reputations of the participating institutions. Consequently, the Rockwell debate descended from lofty scholarship to the general public, where Rockwell was always accepted. Jonathan Jones, art critic for The Guardian newspaper in England, writes that “…the art of Norman Rockwell turns out to be more complex, pluralist and plain likeable”.[23] Jones continues, mentioning Rockwell’s self-conscious allusion to high art in pictures such as The Critic and The Connoisseur, and his deep knowledge of and reference to art history. Jones goes so far as to say that the light in After the Prom has the “visual glory of a Titian pastoral”.[24] There were many additional complimentary reviews validating Rockwell’s oeuvre, and these were, no doubt, read by thousands of people.

The cultural climate during Rockwell’s lifetime, and also during the twenty-first century, is another contributing factor to Rockwell’s re-evaluation. The cultural historian, Richard Leppert posits that art serves a cultural function.[25] With this in mind, art serves a different cultural function today than it did in the twentieth-century. Likewise, Rockwell’s art functions differently today than it did during his lifetime.

From 1916 – 1963 Rockwell worked for The Saturday Evening Post where every illustration was subject to editorial approval. Rockwell painted what The Post wanted.[26] Similarly, the advertising work he did for clients such as Ford, Edison Mazda, Sun-Maid Raisins, Hallmark Cards, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance, Crest, Parker Pens, American Telephone and Telegraph, was also subject to approval, and the product of each company’s vision, whether or not it was consistent with Rockwell’s own. According to Leppert, advertising images are supposed to give their audience direction, uphold their sense of self and belief systems, and also show the promise of future happiness.[27] Rockwell’s artwork did exactly that. His illustrations were loved and are considered products of his time. Rockwell’s style and subject matter changed as the times changed, again, a result of his employers changing tastes, as well as his own leanings, evidenced in him changing employers. Rockwell left The Post and began working for Look magazine in 1963. Now he paints images of the civil rights movement, space exploration, and American presidents. While the art of his early career served to reassure the American people, these later work served a social function, becoming what Buechner called “pictorial reporting” or “non-fiction illustration”.[28]

To the twenty-first century viewer who is further removed from Rockwell’s images, they become a part of American cultural history. We project different value and meaning onto Rockwell’s work because we exist within a different time. These images are no longer current advertisements, or current events but rather glimpses into a bygone era and the way of viewing the world from that era. The images summon a sense of nostalgia for a vanished past. On the one hand, we need nostalgia to comfort us in times of crisis and terror, but on the other hand, nostalgia is just a trap, a fantasy. Twenty-first century viewers can relate to Rockwell’s themes of freedom, democracy, equality, tolerance, truth, morality, idyllic America, and human aspirations. This timelessness, filtered through a twenty-first century eye ignites discussion and is certainly a contributing factor in Rockwell’s recent re-evaluation.

Rapid technological advancements have also impacted the current cultural climate and, in turn, the discussion surrounding Rockwell’s reputation. The Internet breaks down barriers to information. People express themselves easily, reaching many individuals through social media, particularly blogging. The result is the dissolution of established formal hierarchy across all fields. In art, the rise of graffiti art, digital art, street art, textile art, the attention and accolades awarded to graphic art within the advertising and marketing fields, as well as the blurring of the line between design and fine art, contribute to a re-ordering and re-defining of what makes art, “art”. Academics are no longer the sole authority; the everyday person contributes valuably to the debate and scholarship is responding.

The media flurry in the early 2000s was accessible and viewed by thousands of people. Rockwell was in the spotlight, in the center of New York City, and exhibited at one of the most respected art institutions in the world. An erudite upending of opinion about Rockwell was taking place in the public eye. The commercial art world capitalized on this ripe environment and auction houses began monetizing Rockwell’s work. Clarissa Ceglio states that “the display of visual culture in art museums can also be read as a hegemonic move to regain control over cultural capital that, despite it’s low, mass, or popular origins, has a currency within society too valuable for a power group to ignore.”[29]

In 1995, twenty-three Rockwell oil paintings sold at auction. The highest price achieved was $800,000 for After the Prom, an extraordinary price at the time. Of the twenty-three sold that year, three sold for over $100,000. By 2002 prices were much higher: Rosie the Riveter[30], the Saturday Evening Post cover from May 29, 1943 sold at Sotheby’s for $4,959,500, another major milestone. Six additional oil paintings in the same sale sold for over one million dollars. In 2006, Breaking Home Ties sold for $15,416,000 and four other paintings sold for over one million dollars. In December 2013, Sotheby’s New York focused their December American Art auction on seven oil paintings given by Rockwell to Ken Stuart, his former editor at the Saturday Evening Post. Sotheby’s created a supplementary catalogue to advertise the sale, calling the paintings “Masterworks”. This marketing tactic further legitimized Rockwell and bolstered the importance of the works to garner the highest sums possible. The financial results were astronomical: Saying Grace sold for over $46,000,000, setting the record for the highest price paid at auction for a Norman Rockwell painting.[31] The Gossips sold for almost $8,500,000. At Christie’s’ New York, American Art sale in May, 2014, The Rookie sold for $22,565,000, the second highest auction price for a Rockwell.[32] The enormous leap in prices from 1995-2014 is no doubt a result of the complex and intertwined factors discussed in this essay thus far.

The nature of Norman Rockwell’s artistic process lends itself to collectability. This is another factor upon which the art world, particularly the auction houses and dealers, has maximized, thereby contributing to his re-evaluation. Rockwell was painstaking in preparing compositions and details for every image he created. Consequently, there are drawings of various degrees of completeness that regularly come up at auction and which are estimated at attainable prices.[33] Similarly, Rockwell’s work crosses many genres: American art, illustration art, advertising media, magazine art, and drawing. This affordable entry point on the low end, combined with astronomical prices on the upper end, makes Rockwell a popular artist at auction.

Norman Rockwell is enjoying a new place in the story of American art. This re-evaluation is the product of several factors: scholarship turning away from outdated theory, thereby allowing fresh recognition of Rockwell’s skill; museum interest bringing the academic discussion to a general public who already love Rockwell; the current cultural climate breaking the barriers that determine what art is; and the auction houses capitalizing on and legitimizing this new order. There will always be differing opinions about Rockwell’s importance, but it is the continued discussion that underscores his importance. If Rockwell is not significant, he will not hold so much attention. Carol Vogel writes in The New York Times that the Whitney Museum of American Art will open their new building May 1, 2015, with an inaugural exhibition that, like the museum, is searching for an ‘American Identity’.[34] Will this identity include Norman Rockwell?

 

 

 

[1]           I use the term art world establishment to include art historians, academics, critics, museum professionals, art gallery dealers, auction house specialists, and others who steer art historical discourse.

[2]           Thomas S. Buechner. Norman Rockwell A Sixty Year Retrospective. (New York, 1972) pg. 98.

[3]           Francis Haskell. Patrons and Painters: Art and Society in Baroque Italy. (New Haven, 1980) pgs. 16-19.

[4]                 There is much writing on seventeenth and eighteenth-century art theory. For a general overview see Charles Harrison, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger, ed. Art in Theory 1648-1815: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. (Oxford, 2000).

[5]                 I use the term “twentieth-century” to describe a contemporary of Rockwell’s during his lifetime. I use the term “twenty-first century” to describe anyone looking at Rockwell’s art after his death.

[6]           For a complete discussion of Clement Greenberg’s thoughts on modernism and the avant-garde versus “popular” and “commercial” art see: Clement Greenberg. ‘Avant-Garde and Kitsch’ in Parisian Review VI, No. 5, Fall 1939, pgs. 34-49.

[7]           Thomas S. Buechner. Norman Rockwell A Sixty Year Retrospective. (New York, 1972), Preface.

[8]           Bernard Danenberg Galleries exhibited such popular American modernists as Max Weber, Alexander Archipenko, Marsden Hartley, Oscar Bluemner, William Zorach and Abraham Walkowitz.

[9]           Rita Reif. ‘If Collection Appeals to Them, They Buy It All’ in The New York Times, March 12, 1974, pg. 28.

[11]          Oral History interview with Harry N. Abrams, 1972 March 14, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[12]          Ibid.

[13]          Ibid.

[14]          Clarissa J. Ceglio. ‘Complicating Simplicity’ in American Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, June 2002, pgs. 279-306.

[15]          Stephen Bann. ‘Questions of Genre in Early Nineteenth-Century French Painting’ in New Literary History, Vol. 34, No. 3, ‘Theorizing Genres II’, Summer , 2003, pg. 502.

[16]          The Guggenheim also played a role in manifesting the exhibition. Penelope Green. ‘Mirror, Morror; Rockwell, Irony-free’ in The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2001.

[17]          www.theartstory.org/robertrosenblum.

[18]         Penelope Green. ‘Mirror, Morror; Rockwell, Irony-free’ in The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2001.

[19]          For a more complete discussion of the mechanics behind the choice of the word “pictures” rather than “paintings” in the 1999 exhibition title, see Clarissa J. Ceglio. ‘Complicating Simplicity’ in American Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, June 2002, pgs. 289-291.

[20]          Thomas Hoving. The Great Art Communicator’ in Norman Rockwell Pictures for the American People (New York, 1999), pg. 29.

[21]          Ibid. pg. 29.

[22]          Ibid. pg. 29.

[23]          Jonathan Jones. ‘Home of the Brave’ in The Guardian, February 19, 2002.

[24]          Ibid.

[25]          For a complete discussion of the cultural function of art see Richard Leppert, Art and the Committed Eye: The Cultural Function of Imagery. (Boulder, 1996).

[26]          After a 1923 trip to Paris, Rockwell submitted a modernist cover with abstract use of color. It was rejected by The Saturday Evening Post editorial board. See Thomas S. Buechner. Norman Rockwell A Sixty Year Retrospective. (New York, 1972), pg. 47.

[27]          Richard Leppert, Art and the Committed Eye: The Cultural Function of Imagery. (Boulder, 1996), pg. 3.

[28]          Thomas S. Buechner. Norman Rockwell A Sixty Year Retrospective. (New York, 1972), pg. 91.

[29]          Clarissa J. Ceglio. ‘Complicating Simplicity’ in American Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 2, June 2002, pg. 291.

[30]          This work is reproduced three times in the Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People exhibition, catalogue. This publicity must have influenced the auction selling price. See Maureen Hart Hennessey and Anne Knuston. Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People (New York, 1999), pgs. 28, 30, and back cover.

[31]          Saying Grace is the image on the cover of the 1972 Danenberg retrospective catalogue underscoring the vision of Bernard Danenberg Galleries in 1972.

[32]          All auction sale date is gathered from Artnet.com price database

[33]          A small circular graphite drawing sold at Sotheby’s, New York on April 16, 2014 for $8,750, another two drawing sold at the same auction, one a study for an advertisement for $11,875 and the second for $10,625.

[34]          Carol Vogel. ‘The Whitney Museum, Soon to Open Its New Home, Searches for American Identity’ in The New York Times, March 26, 2015.

 

 

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